Let's get rid of 'unchurched', 'dechurched' and 'churched' (Andrew Roberts)

Monday, 24 September, 2012

Andrew RobertsAndrew Roberts suggest we get rid of 'unchurched', 'dechurched' and 'churched'.

When I was a young minister in Doncaster a new mum came with her baby at the behest of her own insistent mother saying she needed to be churched. Unfamiliar with this medieval practice of purification I explained that she was very welcome and prayed prayers of thanks with her for the gift of her new child. That seemed to do the trick and she went away happy, returning a few weeks later to have the child baptised.

I admit to having felt uncomfortable then with the 'churched' phraseology and admit now to being uncomfortable with talk of the churched, dechurched, unchurched and never churched in a very different context - namely the world of fresh expressions. The language is used a lot; especially when writers are quantifying the missional effectiveness of newly forming churches. But is it good language?

I have two particular problems with it. The first is that it risks turning people into ecclesiastical 'widgets' or commodities. Categorising or defining people in a way that allows them to be quantified is helpful for particular pieces of analysis but risks depersonalising human beings made in the image of God. It also feels very institutional.

The second problem I have is that we may well end up falling into the same trap that has blighted many an inherited church, namely putting attendance or association before discipleship. Are we looking to 'church' people or make disciples of Jesus? As Martyn Atkins is fond of pointing out, Jesus says, 'I will build my church, you go and make disciples'.

I submit a plea for some more helpful, human and Christlike language. I recognise that discipleship is communal as well as personal so in seeking to denote who is part of fresh expressions might we be better to talk of newcomers (unchurched or never churched), returners (dechurched) and regulars (churched). We talk about people in this way at my local pub and it feels a lot warmer.

I'm sure there must be better suggestions out there. What do you think?

About the author: 

Andrew Roberts is Director of Training for Fresh Expressions.


I agree, as whilst labelling is most useful for analysis and statistics, at the end of the day we are looking at trying to encourage human beings and nurture and strengthen relationships between the potential new, the nervous newcomers, the "regulars" and the encouragers. More than labels, they are people we should be loving in all contexts.

I have two thoughts on this.
1) I quite agree, those phrases are used far too much, and writing academic papers I find myself having to use those phrases. They prove a point. However, if we accept that the earth is the Lords, and everything in it...and that he is already at work and we are joining in with the work he has planned for us...then we also have to start asking questions about whether the language of 'in' or 'out' is relevant. Moreover (as they say in academic papers!) what is this church thing anyway? Personally I don't actually enjoy church unless I am doing something (and I'm a pioneer minister), but when I am with our small fresh expression I love it, and feel more encouraged. And yet we are reluctant to call ourselves church.
2) I am becoming more aware of the need for a variety of entrances into discipleship. Even fresh expressions runs a risk of becoming attractional, with it's nice flavours of coffee, or interesting interactive activities...I picked up through 'organic church' (cole) the thought of discipling individuals and then bringing them together. Currently I have been meeting with a chap for the last few months who has mental health problems, and talking about life and about God. The other day he said how he would love to join with others in 'church' but couldn't face it. I told him about our small fresh expression, and he said he would like to come.

firstly it is good to see the question asked - what has been a useful way of understanding the importance of a church background in people's personal faith journeys has spawned language that i think offers useful analysis but is not to be confused with a way of placing people in a category that somehow says everything there is to say about them. the problem comes if we assume that the most important thing to understand about someone is their history of church attendance. however, the reality is that past church attendance remains the biggest indicator of future attendance and fresh expressions have rightly noted that how people come to Christian faith who have not attended church as children is something we need to understand far better as it isn't something that we are good at enabling. for this reason i would argue for the use of the categories for analysis but would be interested to see if we can find other ways of describing those faith journeys. my fear is that if we are not careful we will stop asking why it is that those who have no church background are so much less likable to become followers of Christ. early evidence from the work the Sheffield Centre is doing http://www.churcharmy.org.uk/ms/sc/reimaginechurch/sfc_database.aspx suggests that who you aim to build church with as a fresh expression relates strongly to who you actually end up with in your church. it is those who consciously aim to relate to the non-churched who succeed in doing so, seeking simply to welcome all seems likely to leave us largely only welcoming those who already have a church background.

the discipleship question is however vital, the danger is indeed that by focusing on church attendance we create church attendees rather than disciples. Andy i think rightly questions 'in and out' definitions, and i think this is right - and why i advocated a centred set approach that asks where we are on a journey to being fully transformed into the likeness of Christ rather than asking if we have crossed some boundary.

T think the whole language of church needs to be considered.
When we start a new job or join a new social group we are often baffled by the use of "in" language and abbreviations. That's a great way to either alienate people or prove that you have been around longer than them.
In "church" circles, and often outside of them when dealing with non-Christians, we use a whole raft of words and phrases that are rarely, if ever, used anywhere else. Do other people really ever use the phrase, "I'm not doing it because I want to be involved, I'm doing it to 'support a worthy cause'." Do the people down the pub or at the golf club talk about being in "Fellowship" with each other? Don't think so.
I could go on, but I won't. You can hear them for yourselves and ask if that is the way people really talk.

I wonder if we need to move away completely from using the word 'church'. A word that Jesus never used. ( It's debatable if he said the words, " I will build my church" or if it was a response from the early followers). Perhaps we need to focus on disciples and 'kingdom' language. Looking for signs of God's kingdom here and now and working for its fullfillment and following God's purposes in compassion and generosity to all.
But Kingdom langauge presents its own problems - another word for kingdom anyone?


I know what you mean Susan, but we need to think carefully about how we might further alienate those who don't undersatnd us if we dropped the word church and developed a whole new set of language. We might become even more eccentric than many think we already are.

I agree with all you said Andrew.

I have been thinking recently that a way may be to start our theologising on this not about what makes those who are called Christians and those who do not different but rather on the common ground we have.

The first one mentioned in the bible being,... we were all made by God.
We all had Gods spirit breathed in to us when we are made.
We all have a relationship with God already, whether we acknowledge Christ or not and we can may also get a place in heaven even though we may not have said I think Christ is Saviour...walking in the way (of Christ..living like Christ did) and the Holy Spirit (whole person, happy, healthy, good attitude, etc) if we live according to the Way, Truth and Life ...?

May I at the same time add to the list,... all ancient architectural words eg vestibule, role titles that dont say waht they do on the tin eg. deacon, bishop, vicar, ordained and all bits (spoken or enacted) in the Communion service that dont help people to realise when they walk in half way through, for the first time, from the street... that we are a loving family invited to share in a bountiful feast and share it with others.

Rev'd Andy Gray,... I agree woith much of what you say also. I was reminded the other day that students at Jesus time chose their teachers and not the other way around. Hmmm,... mixing this with the fellowship of the believers (Acts 2:42-47) . there is i think one thing to bear in mind, people arent going to realise a small group of people caring about each other unless they meet a small group of people caring about each other

steve, if there is a clash between church and discipling then surely its simply that the church isnt authenticly replicating Christ??

susan,... how about the 'created world' and 'the spiritual bit that we can not see'?

ops looks like i got into a flow, soz for monopolising space, stopping now :)

good wishes to all

I agree with your comments, and as Jesus said that we need to "make disciples" then surely this is the language we need to use? In other words are people moving closer to Jesus or away from him would be a better way to work out whether or not we are being effective? Let's face there are lots of people who attend "church" who are not necessarily "following Jesus" and there are probably lots of people out in the world who are moving in the same direction as Jesus.

Good article Andrew. One reason for hanging onto the language (however uncomfortable it makes us feel) is in measuring the missional effectiveness of the pioneering things we're doing.

Too many exciting new ventures have simply moved people who were already practising Christians from one 'box' to another.

I like George Lings image of the fresh expression or church plant as a safety net (catching people who would otherwise have fallen out of 'church') rather than a fishing net (encouraging people who would not thus far describe themselves as followers of Jesus to become followers of Jesus), but if we never invent a 'fishing net' the future of the Christian movement looks very bleak.

If we use 'churched' language as though it gives some evaluative measure of the quality of peoples' discipleship, we're in cloud-cuckoo land.

If our mission is designed to help people become 'churched' rather than become disciples of Jesus, we're making a travesty of the gospel.

If our measure of discipleship is how well we are living in a way that announces and anticipates the Kingdom of God (which is the sort of approach I prefer), then one indicator is whether people are seeking the support (give & take) that some sort of Christian Community offers - but its not the only indicator and may not be the best.

Complicated isn't it?

I've just had an interesting discussion about if the class system in the UK exists, and if it does, what defines it? is it job (or lack of)...or money...or simply attitude, in some cases pride (I have experience of working class folks refusing to be known as anything other than working class). So, is it an attitude that defines if someone is church, dechurched and so on...and that attitude/label is self appropriated? You probably won't get a dechurched person saying they are dechurched as such, but they might say they would never go to church, and be proud in their conviction that they wouldn't, to the extent that to do so would break a promise to themselves, so to speak. In Norman Ivison's blog http://normanivison.blogspot.co.uk/ point 5 says "The annoying thing is that young adults value integrity. They smell double standards a mile off and won't hesitate to point them out to you.". Thus, to say you don't go to church, but then to start, effectively makes you a double standard person, which is seen as bad. Is that worse maybe than recognising sin? Is double standards a worse 'sin' than, say, lying, or jealousy? Is this the gap we need to bridge,as much as a cultural one?

Dissappointed to see people still separating discipleship from Church, and worse- trying to get behind the Bible to the 'real' words of Jesus before his nasty disciples/ ie- the early CHURCH, messed it all up.

This is really poor and old fasioned thinking is it not?

The folk who witnessed to who Jesus was also tell us that we disciple people in Churches. That is what we are given.

Is it too late to remind us that fresh expressions...are fresh expressions 'of church'.

By all means reform and improve but lets not privatise our faith- or worse still- attempt to reinvent it.

just seen this which makes some sane points on the subject...


It seems difficult to see ourselves as others do. May I ask how we then deal with membership?
For some [older] folk, Messy Church is their only form of loving fellowship, prayer, giving and God-focused gratitude - but if such a community or congregation is ecumenical, how do we deal with membership and all it entails?
Some Messy Churches have registered their work for charitable purposes, so folk can even gift aid their 'collection' monies, but what would they say their denomination was, say, to the hospital chaplain?
Identity is sometimes very necessary; the language of our activity(& sacraments) and our description of our congregations is important, but does the growth in Fresh Expressions offer a welcome opportunity to re-establish what the show's all about? After all, what is Christianity (in 25 words, answers on a post card!)‽

Maybe one reason for avoiding the term 'churched' is that it is not clear to those outside the clique what it even means. I assumed at first that it was simply a clunky way to say 'churchgoer', but the comments imply that it refers to someone who has been brought up in churches, roughly synonymous with 'institutionalised'.

If that is correct then I don't think 'newcomers', 'regulars', etc are really equivalent as they are are normally used in terms of current behaviour - I would be a 'regular' in my local pub if I'd been going weekly for six months, even if I'd never been to a pub before that in my life.

For analysis purposes I can see the point of distinguishing between new fellowships which 'sheep-steal', those which are 'safety nets' (to use Graham Horsley's terminology above), and those which genuinely pick up new disciples/converts/whatever. In a formal document a clear definition of what is meant by 'churched', 'unchurched', 'dechurched', etc can be given and everything is clear.

The problem comes when such formal language escapes into general use, where it can be misleading and/or arrogant or exclusive. As an adult convert myself, though, I also have reservations about cutting the discipleship journey into 'boxes' - looking back, my discipling started long before I went near a church, and continues today some thirty-odd years of churchgoing later. I can't really see much meaning to terms which aim to break that journey up.

I would suggest that in conversation it is good to aim to use straightforward words that mean what they say: someone who goes to church is a 'churchgoer', which can be qualified by terms like 'regular' or 'occasional'. In that sort of context then it does make sense for someone who is new to a fellowship to be called a 'newcomer', and someone who has been part of things for ages an 'old hand'. But it probably makes more sense to call them 'Fred' or 'Jill' or whatever.

The Dragons dont frighten me anymore - a blog post exploring the journey to be and grow church off the map which offers a bit of take on this strand.

I don't like the phrase 'missional', which is used quite a lot. Were the disciples told to be missional? No they were commanded to go and preach the gospel, and to expect that as they did that that signs would follow. Isiah 61, vs 1-3, and Matthew 10, vs 7-14.

Going back to Andrews original question, I think that as with all language it depends upon the context in which we use it. It would be crass ans insensitive to say to somebody 'are you unchurched or dechurched?' But it can still be helpful to have those terms in mind as we talk to people and find out more about them and their faith journey. Surely it depends upon the context in which we use the terminology. The terms may not be applicable to some people, but will be to many. However I would never have thought of these words as ones to be used in everyday speech with people, but more as pointers to help us to help them to understand more about encountering Jesus, which is what we are all about.

Reading the comments about church-related vocabulary is extremely valuable and timely and speaks volumes about how important you all seem to view faith ahead of involvement with worship. The more involvement with my worshipping community/family, the more I seem to grow in my faith and the easier it is to continue my disciple "path" out in the rest of the community. Jesus would not have used the word "church"....He might have said "House of the Lord" in reference to a building of worship. I suspect "church" came about later with translations into English from German, but that's just a guess. It's all too easy to only apply the meaning of church to be a place of worship when that very place is really in our heart of hearts. Regardless of a person's Christian denomination or worship space (there's a place here where people worship on horseback while riding on trails!)it's the discipleship into all your life that brings a Christian presence into the world. Christian faith is a way of life far more than a set of liturgical events used in worship. However, when you engage in worship, your focus is away from the ordinary parts of life and is directed toward God and that's a good thing in my eyes and heart. Keep the discourse going!!

I remember when I worked within a business that agreed with the 'plain english campaign'. Just looking at the responces to the original question from Andrew Roberts, anyone can see all the religious jargon that has crept into some Church language!.

all of the comments show the importance of the words we use and how often they get taken from their contexts and their meanings get lost or change. understanding people's past relationship with church is really helpful in knowing how to help them on the path of discipleship - which does indeed i think for many start way before they join with other Christians in a Christian community. asking people if they are 'churched' is very unhelpful! asking them to talk about their own story of experience of church on the other hand may be very helpful indeed, though you may hear some hard things to listen to.

and the word 'church' has surfaced as one of those that has got separated from its roots too. the English word church probably comes from the German but saying it doesn't appear int eh bible is rather meaningless, the same is true of the word God which also comes form the German and doesn't appear in the bible on the simple grounds that the bible is in Greek and these words don't come from the Greek. what matters here is the Greek word in the bible we are trying to represent in English, ekklesia - we get the word ecclesiastical directly from that Greek word. Jesus may or may not have used the word, often scholars think that word appears as an interpretation of what Jesus said by the Gospel writers, especially with regard to building his church on Peter, as has already been suggested. however the word was already in use in the Greek Old Testament as one of the ways of rendering in Greek 'the assembly of the people of Israel' as an alternative to another Greek word synagogue. so in Matt 18 for instance (not the Peter church passage) Jesus is also recorded as telling people to take their disputes to the church but Jesus may have meant the people's assembly. the Greek word originally refers to the assembly of those allowed to vote in a Greek city but is taken up by Jewish writers before Christianity to refer to an assembly of Jewish people. as synagogue was the other word in the end preferred by the Jewish community ekklesia made sense to use for an assembly of Christians. this use is established in the letters before its used in the Gospels. unlike the Greek ekklesia the Christian one welcomed women slaves and the poor, and unlike the Jewish one welcomed gentiles and the ritually impure. so the concept of the church is rather central to Jesus message whether he used the word or not.

we might then chose to find another word to translate ekklesia - indeed we might think that the word church has got so divorced from that it might be good to do so - but what word and why? and also why not simply return back to good understanding of what the word means and communicate that both in what we say about church, but even more in how we live it out? this issue of course comes up elsewhere - do we redeem the meaning of words or find new ones? it may be some can't be redeemed, but finding new ones can make us look as if we are disowning our past rather than facing it and moving on, and can produce even worse results.

Going back to the original article, I guess it depends on whether you see 'church' as something that you do to people (the enquiring mother - the new believer being told that they need to get involved with a local church) or something that forms as part of the process of believing and following Jesus.

Maybe people who use jargon, in their speech with others, or endless articles on the latest buzz words "Missional" in particular, should have a jargon box nearby where the fine would be a pound to a local good cause (Food Bank).

My understanding of the FX movement is that we don't require people to be 'churched'. So when I describe people as 'unchurched' (as I sometimes do) I am simply acknowledging that this person is not coming with a lot of the same baggage as someone who already has some experience of being part of a church community. It avoids making any judgement about that person's standing before God.

im thinking we need to help people realise they are loved and to have such an assurance in this (by God and other people) that they want to share (not coz they should feel they have to but coz its a natural outpouring of their enjoyment)...oh and an eternally foundated ..is that a word??? (lol)... perpective such that fear gets smaller and smaller is teeny

I am a de-churched non-ordained pioneer minister - secular, currently developing a role in prison chaplaincy (the prisoners find that easier to understand than the chaplains it seems).
Anyway, I found your piece as I was looking for material to put my concept on paper for some discussions that are due in the team. And I am delighted.
Maybe I would go a bit further - for me it is not only about avoiding 'ecclesistical commodities' but avoiding that whole concept that grace and christ-shaped life primarily exists, is nurtured etc in church. I find that not to be true.
I am walking with people may only the dimmest bit of inner light accessible and they may not know how to pray (if I remember Paul they are in good company). I start with the assumption, they may have left God - but God has not left them, i.e. the reality that is Creating, Transforming, Guiding for and towards always increasing Love.
I believe people who have hit rockbottom in some shape or form may just be particular receptive to that Light opening within themselves - and then they will know how to pray, believe and reshape and become a bit christ-like in teh process and - they may just gain a new understanding of the tradition of faith, whether the people in the pews in their sunday-best understand that or not.

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